Audience members who are looking forward to seeing Cookie and Lucious battle over their hip-hop recording label in Empire The Musical at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts are sure to be disappointed. This is not a stage version of the hit TV series. Others who were just hoping this “pre-Broadway engagement” featured a musical truly ready for its NYC debut will be disappointed for other reasons. Book, music and lyric writers Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull have built their monumental musical (24 cast members, 13-piece orchestra and what is probably a couple of million dollars invested in sets and costumes) on a shaky foundation.
The story is about the construction of the Empire State Building shortly after the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930-31. The building is the design of idealistic architect Michael Shaw (played winningly by Kevin Earley) and in pre-stock market crash days he hads convinced millionaire financier John J. Raskob (Tony Sheldon) and the beloved former governor of New York Al Smith (Michael McCormick in a delightful comic turn) to build the world’s tallest building, to be named the Al Smith Building. When they realize Shaw is a dreamer and not a doer, they hire Smith’s Can-Do Girl Frankie Peterson (the talented Stephanie Gibson) to make sure they meet Mayor Jimmy Walker’s 14-month deadline to build the 100 story office building. Besides the pedestrian love/hate relationship that develops between Shaw and Peterson, there are a lot of other subplots that pull focus from what should be the musical’s main storyline-the building of the building. Shaw gives a stirring speech at one point, rallying the masses to build something of value in the time of great national distress. The construction puts a lot of men to work, not just at the building site, but at steel mills, concrete suppliers, the phone company etc. What should be an inspiring and joyful paean to the American spirit of can-do and moxie (there is even a song about moxie), instead gets muddled by a bland and telegraphed subplot about the Irish leader of the riveters (Caleb Shaw) and his immigrant wife (Katharine McDonough) as well as a truly ludicrous subplot about a masquerading heiress (Charlotte Maltby). The story would be more interesting and riveting (pun intended) if it concentrated more on the political and financial deals that needed to be massaged to get the construction off the ground and also on the workers themselves, a true melting pot of the American immigrant experience mixing the likes of Pakulski and De Caprio and O’Dowd and Nikos and Duryeavich and the Mohawk Skywalkers led by bulldog foreman Abe (the always watchable Joe Hart).
This is also one musical that suffers the malady of too many songs and not many of them worth singing. Often a scene will lead into a song that expresses the same sentiments that were just spoken in the scene. Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s direction keeps the action flowing but she fares much better with her choreography. The large male chorus does some amazingly athletic moves that really deserve the applause they elicit, but again it seems strange to have a big dance break at some moments in the plot. The long opening number does have an odd pairing of a male couple who keeping changing partners with other males. It also contains a Busby Berkeley pinwheel segment that encircles each of the two leading players. It would look impressive from a bird’s eye camera shot but straight on it just looks awkward. As a matter of fact, a lot of this musical plays like an old Warner Brothers musical from the 1930s, with cardboard characters executing slapstick routines. This is especially prevalent in Sheldon’s characterization of the financier. There is also an over the top eleven o’clock number, “Stick With Us,” that just doesn’t seem to want to end.
The tech is high quality from top to bottom. Philip G. Allen’s sound design, Leon Wiebers’ costumes, Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting and most especially David Gallo’s multi-level platform scenic design and the projection design by Gallo and Brad Peterson. The projections really put the audience in the picture and this is one show you truly do come out humming the sets. The songs on the other hand, not so much. Empire The Musical needs a lot of reconstruction before it can find itself erected on Broadway for any length of time. First thing that needs to be revised is the title.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada. Ends Feb. 14. www.lamiradatheatre.com or 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310.